Donna Perry: The Next GOP Chairman

Thursday, December 08, 2011


It should have come as little surprise that the current Chairman of the state Republican Party, less than a year into the job, was departing for a more lucrative political position with a Wisconsin Senator. No one can fault Ken McKay for returning to a Washington, DC based job opportunity when he has toiled here in the unpaid (and often thankless) position of party Chair while simultaneously trying to maintain a full time legal career.

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There are numerous problems with the Party structure that make it difficult to find a volunteer, high caliber candidate who will have all the right ingredients for the post, can dedicate significant chunks of time in the day, not to mention innumerable evenings to political meetings and events, and who is expected to manage the statewide mechanics and central message machine for dozens and dozens of campaigns for the Legislature every two years with a skeleton staff and meager resources.

McKay’s predecessor Gio Cicione knows well the landmines a Chairman can inadvertently step on despite the best intentions for the wider Party’s good. Cicione gave his considerable intellect, political passion, energy, and time to the Party for a span of four demanding years, and has the battle stories to prove it. It can be difficult if not impossible for anyone to consistently project the right mix of bold leadership yet diplomatic finesse to sufficiently handle the countless internal, often very personally driven political skirmishes that invariably surface that can also serve to weaken a Chairman. All of this is why the now fast moving train to put yet a new Chairman in the hot seat will be a pointless exercise if the Party does not try to think outside the box on some key points.

Speak to the Middle Class

In terms of the chronic underfunding issue, it’s time prominent Republicans, some now in stages of retirement, come together to consider establishing an endowment fund for the specific purpose of allowing for a compensated Chair position to lead the Party. A high profile Party Chair who could suspend the day to day demands of a separate career while taking the reins of the Party,could devote full time attention to fundraising and party building on the scale of what’s needed. The Party maintains a paid Executive Director position, (which in full disclosure, I held during 2007 and partly in 2008) and Patrick Sweeney seems very competent in the job, but to meet contemporary demands to become a well-funded, multi-media oriented, highly aggressive organization confronting a deep pocketed foe, requires a bank account that currently is just not there.

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In terms of the basic message that could help the Party resonate with more voters as local, General Assembly races unfold for 2012, the Party needs to look at the basic Rhode Island middle class taxpayer and speak to them. Long before the majority of Democrats serving in the General Assembly came around to the reality of the urgent need for pension reform, the Republican Party was calling for it for years. They will need to remind the 2012 voter of that and should reclaim the issue as the cornerstone of a dominant fiscal responsibility platform with which the Republican Party has long been associated. Yes there are now many voices which recognize public sector workers have retirements and contracts which no local governments can sustain, but the notion was first projected by the Republicans years ago before it took hold and is now, finally, resonating with the wider public.

In recent days, the name of North Kingstown’s Mark Zaccaria has surfaced as a potential new chairman. Zaccaria, who waged two respectable campaigns against entrenched Second District Congressman Jim Langevin is a bright, energetic, serious candidate for the post who also presents a personable manner and would hit the ground running with a sufficient amount of established Party knowledge and relationships. His competence is not in question. But absent a resolution to the funding issue, anyone who takes the helm shouldunderstand the Party should be less about a singular personalityleader and focus more on the key customer. The ranks of the state’s middle class (and largely private sector) taxpayers need a political party champion. They are the ones losing jobs, losing their family run businesses, maybe losing their homes, and have certainly lost substantial chunks of their own retirement funds in a roller coaster stock market. They are also seeing great loss in their own communities as cities and towns drown in local pension debt and curb local services to keep afloat. They are trying to carve out a living in the now wobbly private sector, many as entrepreneurs with no health benefit or pension attached. They toil outside the cushion of public sector job security and benefits and they need a political party which understands how to represent their struggle.

As the 2012 Republic Party again reshuffles to find a leader, it need to function more like the businesses from which much of its base often comes. The party needs to tone down internal party squabbling and make the sales pitch and the customer their highest priorities if it have any hope of closing the deal next November.

Donna Perry is a Communications Consultant for RISC, (


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